"I'll bet half the people in Fallbrook would say, 'Geez, I didn't know we had a winery,'" says Ira Gourvitz, owner of Fallbrook Winery. In some ways, it's easy to see why. The winery isn't near any sort of main drag. The tasting room is by appointment only. And until recently, the green, barnlike buildings weren't surrounded by hillside vineyards. Toss in a lack of local adoration of local product, and you've got a recipe for anonymity.
But that's changing. The San Diego-area Costcos are carrying Fallbrook wines. Downtown restaurants are putting them on lists. And while the winery is still remote and by appointment only, the surrounding hills are gradually being planted. Some of the vineyards have been in long enough to produce usable fruit, and the first vintage of estate wine is now in barrel. "When we get going," says Gourvitz, "estate production will probably be about six to seven thousand cases. In the end, if we get up to 30,000 cases total production, about 12,000 of that will be estate."
Some of the remaining 18,000 cases' worth of grapes will come from Fallbrook. "We're trying to petition for a Fallbrook AVA," says Gourvitz. And they're hoping to base their claim on more than just Fallbrook estate wine.
"We consulted on putting in three small vineyards this year," says winemaker Duncan Williams. "And one other a couple of years ago. We do get a lot of calls, but we're not accepting too many jobs. It remains to be seen how active we'll be in terms of managing those vineyards, but we're certainly looking to get all the good local fruit that we can. We actually don't have as much contact with people who have been planting up here as we'd like. I think our overall conditions are better than Temecula's."
Says Gourvitz, "Duncan said to me, 'We'll be hard-pressed to screw this up.' Everything grows here in Fallbrook. We're at about 800 feet, and we're only 11 or 12 miles from the ocean. We get that cooling breeze every day," and nice cool nights so that the grapes can keep their acids up as they ripen.
Which is not to say that Fallbrook is looking to cut ties with its more established neighbor. Williams, on the Fallbrook Sauvignon Blanc: "This is a single vineyard, half barrel-fermented -- it's Temecula fruit. It came in ripe -- it's 14 percent alcohol. So it's rich. But I think it's balanced -- it's rich, but with high acid. It's got some citrus, a little bit of grapefruit. That's one of the aromas and flavors I like about Temecula. It's dropped into the background, but it's still there."
And again, about the Fallbrook Special Selection Cabernet: "It's from two Temecula vineyards, which each comprise 40 percent of the blend, and the other 20 percent is from a vineyard near downtown Fallbrook. One of the Temecula wines was a little lighter, very aromatic. The other had a lot of substance to it -- body." The Fallbrook wine, while not quite ready to stand on its own, was "the wine that made this thing work, brought it together. It's got viscosity."
(This talent for blending is part of why Gourvitz is high on Williams. "The whole idea," he says, "is that all the terrific winemakers are not in Napa and Sonoma and Paso Robles. Williams's primary skill is the ability to blend. Yesterday, we were getting ready to bottle our '04 Cabernet. It took a good three hours to go through all the wines, but we did it, and it's got a continuity with our '02 and '03. We always look for a thread.")
For Williams, the trick in bringing in fruit from outside is managing the ripeness. "I think there's a trend all over to go for hang time and ultra-ripe fruit. But it's difficult sometimes to get ripe without getting overripe. And the whole ripening process can get accelerated, especially when you have the Santa Ana winds. Things start moving really quickly -- acids dropping, sugars shooting up. We picked on the early side in '02. That's kind of my preference -- I don't consider it early. I would consider the other guys late. I watch the sugars and the pH around harvest, but it's more about flavors." With the Cabernet, "You can't get away from that really ripe character, but this one has a good acid backbone. I wouldn't let the stuff hang any longer; I didn't want to cross the line." (I know whereof he speaks -- for me, it's a line between rhubarb and prune in a red wine. The former is interesting, the latter, too much.)
"I think as our vineyards mature," says Gourvitz, "we'll buy less and less from out of the area, but I think we'll always bring at least some in." He's planted Sangiovese ("We both like Brunellos") as well as the five grapes of Bordeaux and some Syrah, but he grants that "there are characteristics to those grapes that we can't get here. That Rutherford dust in some of the Napa Cabernets. Even though we amend the soil, we just don't get cool enough at night. And our grapes don't hang long enough to get that intensity of fruit, because if we wait too long, the fruit starts to raisin. It's too warm; it just doesn't get cool enough for them to hang and develop that intensity."
They compensate by dropping fruit and by fermenting in open-top bins instead of tanks -- the 130-gallon bins give a greater skin-to-juice ratio than a 3000-gallon tank. "Plus," says Williams, "we can see and smell what's going on," even if it does mean a lot of running around. "We sometimes have 50 to 60 of those things going at the same time, and we're punching down three or four times a day. We went from 50 to 110 tons last year, so it was an interesting adjustment. Luckily, the harvest was spread out. The year before, we had 70 percent of our fruit come in over a nine-day stretch -- ready or not. If we'd had that situation this year, we would have been pressed pretty hard."
The massive jump in production was, happily, sales-driven. "We've been selling out of stuff," says Williams. "We wanted to expand, but we weren't equipped to step it up. Last year was the year that we were able to get the new equipment. Before, we could label and bottle 600 cases a day. Now we're up around 1200."
Adds Gourvitz, "We're really trying to keep up with our barrel program. We're building a new structure that's primarily for barrel storage, gearing up to support what we're doing."